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The debate over electronic voting machines is heating up again. A draft government report concludes that paperless touch screen voting is not secure and questions continue over 18,000 ballots cast in Sarasota County, Florida. This has boosted efforts in Congress to require paper backups on electronic voting equipment.

But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some experts think that will only further complicate elections.

PAM FESSLER: Sarasota election workers spent hours today at a warehouse testing five of the county's touch screen voting machines. They're trying to figure out why 18,000 ballots showed no votes for a congressional race in the midterm elections.

Unidentified Woman: Make sure you fill in these bubbles exactly as the (unintelligible) shows.

FESSLER: Observers outside the room listened through speakers as the workers were instructed on how to reenact the November vote, in an effort to see if the machines might be at fault. An answer isn't expected before next week. But Democratic Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey thinks that no one will ever know.

Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): The problem cannot be resolved now without a paper trail.

FESSLER: He says there's no way to verify the electronic results without some kind of paper backup to compare them with. His argument has been bolstered by a draft report for the National Institute of Standards in Technology. The agency is helping to develop federal guidelines for voting equipment, although it's not clear the NIST findings will be adopted.

Holt says something has to be done soon, even if on the surface it appears that the midterm elections went relatively well.

Representative HOLT: For all we know, there are other examples maybe dozens it could be, where maybe 18,000 votes are not missing, but maybe 400 votes or 1,000 votes are missing.

FESSLER: The congressman already has more than half of his House colleagues as cosponsors for his bill to require paper backups on electronic voting machines. He expects quick action next year. In the Senate, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a similar bill in January. And aides say she'll hold aggressive hearings on the issue as the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

Mr. DAN TOKAJI (Ohio State University): The most important thing for congress is to take a deep breath.

FESSLER: Dan Tokaji is an election law expert at Ohio State University. He worries that momentum is building for something that could prove to be a mistake.

Mr. TOKAJI: Passing paper trails at this stage, based on what we know right now is really fool's gold. It may provide an initial sense of confidence. But that confidence won't be long lasting unless we resolve some deeper issues.

FESSLER: Such as adequate poll worker training and better voter access. Tokaji notes that there's strong evidence that the problem in Sarasota wasn't due to the machines. Researchers from Dartmouth and UCLA concluded last week that many of the county's voters probably overlooked the race because of poor ballot design.

In addition, lots of election officials complain that paper audit trails cause more problems than they solve. Georgia Secretary of State Kathy Cox spoke at a forum this week in Washington.

Ms. KATHY COX (Georgia Secretary of State): They all talking about all paper jams. And if the paper jams and the voter doesn't know what to look for, the election poll worker may not understand there's a jam. When you go to count your paper component, it's not going to match your electronic component because there was a jam. So the paper is not a panacea.

FESSLER: In fact, a study in Cuyahoga County, Ohio found that ten percent of paper ballots attached to its touch screen machines were blank, ripped or otherwise uncountable. That's causing local jurisdictions to take matters into their own hands as the debate over how to make electronic voting more reliable continues. Cuyahoga County commissioners this week said they want to ditch their new touch screen voting equipment before the next election. Voters in Sarasota County agreed in November to do the same thing.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington

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